Several thousand in rare march against Belarus leader

People carry a banner reading "Stop" during a rally called the "March of Infuriated Belarusians" against a Soviet-style "tax on spongers" in Minsk, on February 17, 2017, with biggest round of opposition protests yet planned for March 25, 2017

Some 3,000 protesters marched through the Belarusian capital Minsk Wednesday in the latest of a spate of rare demonstrations to challenge the country's authoritarian leader.

People shouted for strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko to resign as they held an officially sanctioned rally amid anger over plans for a controversial tax on those who work less than six months a year.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron grip since 1994, suspended the implementation of the so-called "tax on spongers" last week in the face of public ire but refused to scrap the unpopular measure entirely.

The move was seen as a rare concession to the biggest show of public discontent in years but demonstrations have not dissipated as people suffer in the face of a lengthy economic downturn.

"The popular protests are not just connected with the decree," Sergei Kalyakin, one of the organisers of Wednesday's march, told AFP.

"The problem is that it has become unbearable to live."

While the rally in Minsk passed off peacefully, authorities detained the leaders of an 800-strong demonstration in the western town of Grodno.

Some 100 people have been detained by the authorities since the start of the protests in February, the Vyasna rights group has said, with many receiving jail terms of up to two weeks.

Wedged between Russia and Poland, landlocked Belarus looks to former Soviet master Moscow as it closest ally and partner.

Lukashenko, however, insists he remains independent from the Kremlin and has recently tried to seek warmer ties for his isolated homeland with the West.

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